Wyoming Boom Town Worries Less Demand For Coal Will Darken Its Future
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
As coal mining towns around the country have emptied out, Gillette, Wyo. has boomed. The mines in the Powder River Basin around Gillette produce nearly 40 percent of the nation's coal, supplying power plants in 32 states. Under the Obama administration's new regulations for carbon emissions from power plants, demand for coal is expected to plummet. But as Wyoming Public Radio's Stephanie Joyce reports, Gillette isn't giving up on its coal industry anytime soon.
LAURA CHAPMAN: Hi guys. How are you doing?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Good.
STEPHANIE JOYCE, BYLINE: At Laura Chapman's cupcake shop in downtown Gillette, cupcakes sell for $2.45 apiece and come in flavors like gluten-free blonde buffalo and strawberry basil with raspberry frosting. Chapman opened the shop two years ago after moving back to Gillette from Arizona. And she says business has thrived.
CHAPMAN: Gillette is way different now than it was when I was a teenager or even a young child in that we do have a lot more to offer people now.
JOYCE: Gillette's general prosperity is hard to miss. The town of 30,000 boasts a disc golf course and an aquatic center with a lazy river and waterslides. The junior high school has a planetarium. And the event center brings in performers like ZZ Top and comedian Lewis Black. Chapman says that's largely thanks to the coal industry.
CHAPMAN: It trickles down into every aspect of our community.
JOYCE: Wyoming's dominance of the U.S. coal market is relatively recent. Thanks to the Federal Clean Air Act, Wyoming's low-energy, but also low-sulfur coal took off in the mid '70s. Pat Avery has been a real estate agent in Gillette for 30 years, and he's watched the town grow.
PAT AVERY: I think Wyoming coal will be the last man standing of all the coal.
JOYCE: As coal has become more expensive to mine elsewhere, Wyoming coal has stayed incredibly cheap. And even with the new carbon regulations, the U.S. is still expected to be burning coal for almost 30 percent of its power 15 years from now. But Avery also doesn't think it will be business as usual. He recently tried selling a house to a couple that moved from West Virginia after getting laid off at the coal mines there.
AVERY: They were looking hard and heavy at buying a house. But a couple of months ago, they just backed off and said, well, we're not sure what's going to happen.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Get it, get it.
DAVID BACCA: That was one hell of a play (laughter).
JOYCE: More than 700 people play in Gillette's adult softball league. At this game, David Bacca is part of the small, but enthusiastic crowd.
BACCA: I think it's been a - kind of a tradition. I was born and raised in New Mexico, in the old coal mining camps there. And everybody, they all played baseball at night - worked in the mines all day, and they played baseball in the evenings.
JOYCE: Today, Bacca manages an explosives firm that contracts with the coal mines.
BACCA: If you look at the number of people who work here and the amount of money it's invested in these mines, I mean, it's pretty hard to believe that they could ever all go away.
JOYCE: But unlike most people in Gillette, Bacca thinks the mines will go away and the town with them, unless it diversifies its economy.
BACCA: I came from a little town called Raton. When that coal mine closed, the town - it took it 20 years, but it's slowly drying up.
CHAPMAN: If we start thinking this is the end and acting as if this is the end, it probably would be.
JOYCE: That's Laura Chapman, the cupcake shop owner. I ask her if she's thought of a plan B. What happens if Gillette doesn't get to decide when the coal boom ends?
CHAPMAN: We hope that those people who outvoted us in the rest of the country drive their Smart cars from Yellowstone to Devil's Tower and stop in Gillette and eat cupcakes.
JOYCE: But for now, Chapman and Gillette, are banking on Wyoming coal being the last man standing. For NPR News, I'm Stephanie Joyce in Gillette.
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